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Vacuum haunts Umm Qasr

Umm Qasr, March 26 (Reuters): Just as US and British troops were closing in on this dusty southern Iraqi port of 40,000, Om Omar fled.

The top Baath Party official in Umm Qasr left behind belongings and posters of President Saddam Hussein, fearing Iraqis would turn on her after years of iron-fisted state rule.

But replacing Om Omar, described as a strong, tall woman with frizzy hair, will be far harder than driving tanks through the gritty streets of Umm Qasr and promising Iraqis a normal life after the war ends.

This Gulf town, the first to be captured by the invading troops, could serve as a blueprint for US forces as they gain control of other parts of Iraq and try to impose stability.

Saddam has effectively been the only politician in Iraq for decades and the Baath Party, dominated by his Sunni Muslim clan, has kept a tight grip on power, especially in the overwhelmingly Shia south.

So filling the political vacuum will be daunting. Many Iraqis fear that just mentioning the name of a potential leader could cost them their lives if Saddam survives.

“We have lived through 35 years of fear. How can the Americans expect us even to think of switching to democracy or deciding who we want as leaders just like that'” said Abu Ali.

US and British troops still need to prove to Iraqis that they are liberators, not occupiers. “If they are really here to save us we accept. But we will resist any occupation,” said Ahmed.

With telephone lines down, electricity supplies cut off and information scarce, the mood in this town remains very nervous a day after the invaders took full control.

“The situation is difficult. Some of us feel very anxious,” said Mohamed Mansouri, director of the town’s Mother of all Battles hospital.

Many in the town are labourers and fishermen who have left families in Zubayr and Basra further north. With no means of contacting their relatives, they are desperate for information.

“Many people have families in Basra. My own mother and brother are there,” said Khaled, 38. “We would like to go there but we are told the road is too dangerous.”

A critical shortage of water and fresh food has added to the tension in Umm Qasr. A humanitarian convoy carrying food and water crossed the border from Kuwait on Wednesday but most has yet to be distributed save for a few dozen bottles of mineral water thrown from the back of a truck by British soldiers.

At the hospital 19-year-old Wafa Malik sat with her five-month-old baby Hussein, his arm hooked up to an intravenous drip. He was admitted the previous day with severe dehydration. “We hope things will get better,” was all Wafa said.

Memories of the uprising among southern Shias following the 1991 Gulf War still loom large in people’s minds. It was brutally suppressed by Saddam’s forces after US troops left, and this time people are reluctant to show their hand.

“The people are afraid of everything,” said Mansouri. “They are afraid of the Americans and the British and they are afraid of Saddam. Will things change back like in 1991' This time it is hard to trust anyone.”

The US-led troops are busy setting up checkpoints and planning for advances towards the capital Baghdad.

Most can’t speak a word of Arabic, let alone understand the delicate balance between Iraq’s Sunnis, Shias and Kurds.

For now, the only thing uniting Iraqis in Umm Qasr is rage.

The local Baath Party headquarters was on fire on Wednesday. Baath Party documents were destroyed days ago after the building was bombed by the Americans.

“The local people set it on fire,” said Abu Awad, smiling. “We want to be free.”

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